Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

December 1, 2013

Local teams to use Lego cities at Saturday's tourney at ACTC

Mike James
The Independent

ASHLAND — Snapping interlocking plastic bricks together is an activity generally carried out by small children at home.

Yet a squad of grownups and teenagers whiled away a Tuesday afternoon assembling Legos into buildings, vehicles and the other accoutrements of a model municipality.

More precisely, they were equipping seven model towns, each of which will soon undergo threatened destruction as part of a tabletop exercise.

The activity is one component of the Lego tournament Ashland Community and Technical College will host Saturday. Competitors will navigate the Lego cities with robots they program to perform specific tasks, scoring points for each properly completed task.

The tournament will bring 12 teams from six school districts to ACTC’s EastPark campus to test their expertise. The competition is designed to strengthen an array of science skills from robotics to physics.

The event is the first regional Lego tournament in the area;  two teams have entered tournaments outside the region, but the others are new to competition.

The tournament was made possible via a $10,000 grant to ACTC from an anonymous donor, said Chris Boggs, who is technical director for the tournament and an associate professor of information technology at the college.

The college divided that among the teams to finance purchase of their Lego equipment, Boggs said.

While the college provides the competition tables and Lego components, each team also has its own setup for planning and practice.

The competition arena consists of a tabletop mat about the size of a ping-pong table marked to indicate the location of buildings and other components. The components are constructed from Lego kits made specifically for the tournament.

The big-ticket item on each team’s shopping list is the robot, which costs about $500 and is the only component customizable. The robot kit includes multiple motors and teams can configure it to push, pull, lift or grab.

Each year the tournament is based on a different real-world problem; this year’s theme is Nature’s Fury, and teams will program their robots to solve problems based on the effects of earthquakes, fires, floods and other natural disasters.

Among the tasks their robots may have to perform are removing broken limbs imperiling power lines, routing supply trucks to evacuation zones and reuniting separated family members. The skill is in the planning and preparation; robots are not remote-controlled but must be programmed for precise movements and actions.

The tournament also includes a research project, robot design critique by a panel of engineers, and an exercise to demonstrate how well teammates work as a group.

Competing teams include one from Catlettsburg Elementary, two made up of students in Boyd County’s gifted and talented program, two from Boyd County Middle School, two sponsored by the Greenup County Extension Office, two from Holy Family, one from Raceland-Worthington, one sponsored by the Carter County Extension Office and a combined Ashland team from Verity Middle School and Charles Russell Elementary.

Only the two Greenup teams have competed before.

ACTC’s sponsorship recognizes the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, Boggs said. Nurturing student interest in the STEM subjects is a community investment, according to Boggs. “The community as a whole is better off when we instill a background of science and technology,” he said.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.